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"I'm not a racist but...": Bias in Finnish workplaces often indirect

Workers of immigrant background report a variety of indirect or unconscious discrimination on the job, researchers say.

Siivooja työntää siivouskärryä
It might be subconsciously assumed that cleaning jobs are suitable for people of an immigrant background, regardless of the person's education. Image: Henrietta Hassinen / Yle
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Awareness and understanding of the issue of racism in the Finnish workplace is still developing, according to Michaela Moua, Senior Officer at the Office of the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman (siirryt toiseen palveluun). In general, racism is usually understood to mean saying something overtly racist or committing a racist act.

However, workplace racism can be much more than that, and it is often not thought of as racism at all.

"This can happen at a structural level, for example in relation to pay, or to other benefits of the employment relationship or career advancement. Even if other factors, such as educational background and job performance, are the same, advancement in a career may still be more difficult and slower [for an immigrant]," Moua says.

In Finland, racism in the workplace is rarely experienced as a direct act such as racist harassment or bullying, according to Barbara Bergbom, a senior expert at the National Institute for Occupational Health, but instead typically occurs in indirect ways.

"When people of immigrant background feel that they are being bullied, it often leads to feelings of isolation and exclusion. The behaviour might be direct, but the racism contained within it might be indirect," Bergbom explains.

Research Manager Anu Castaneda coordinates research and development activities on cultural diversity at the National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL). According to Castaneda, indirect racism and discrimination are difficult to identify and therefore can be difficult to tackle. In general, they manifest themselves in the form of unfair or less respectful treatment of a person.

"Discrimination has a lot to do with mental health, perceived health, social well-being and experiences of trust with other people. Indirect discrimination also has these same connections," Castaneda says.

"You speak good Finnish"

Bergbom believes that the more distant the culture that a person comes from, the more likely he or she is to be experience racism in the Finnish workplace. People from Africa and the Middle East have reported the most incidents of experiencing unfair or unequal treatment at work.

Bergbom says there is still very little research on the experiences of bias against employed immigrants in the workplace in Finland. However, it is known that there is discrimination in recruitment.

"Apparently there is especially a problem in Finland for those coming from Africa. But in general, immigrant backgrounds' experiences of their work and work community are largely positive. Quite many are satisfied," Bergbom says.

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Lähihoitaja Bern Amar työssään auttamassa vanhusta, Attendo, Vantaa, 12.11.2018.
According to the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, the experiences of people with immigrant backgrounds in the Finnish workplace are largely positive. Image: Jari Kovalainen / Yle

Moua also notes that everyday racism is about seemingly innocuous small words or deeds. For example, because of skin colour, people may be asked very intimate questions.

"Where are you from, or how do you speak such good Finnish? These are probably the most common questions. It may not be enough to answer that I'm from Munkkiniemi or that my mother tongue is Finnish; they want to know more. And it's not once or twice, but this will be asked hundreds of times throughout a person's life," Moua says.

Everyone in the workplace should have the chance to choose if they wish to reveal personal details or not, but people of ethnic background are often denied this freedom of choice, she observes.

"I'm not a racist, but ..."

Anu Castaneda, research manager at THL, argues that everyone has prejudices and that sometimes this leads to people acting in a discriminatory way towards others.

A person's own life experiences and background shapes their thinking, and typically one's own way of thinking about things is considered normal, while another person's way of thinking is considered abnormal.

According to Castaneda, a good example of this is the phrase "I'm not a racist but..." which is used by many people.

"It is extremely difficult for us to perceive ourselves as being creatures that discriminate against each other. It would be more beneficial for us to dare to admit that we are all in some way discriminatory, and then to be consciously liberated from it", Castaneda explains.

Bergbom also believes that people discriminate against each other, whether unconsciously or not.

"This is also about what you are used to. If you are accustomed to a diverse environment and your friends come from different cultural backgrounds, then the attitude is different. The majority of young people have friends of immigrant background," Bergbom says.

However, Finland remains a fairly homogeneous country in terms of working life. There are many professions in Finland that do not have a first generation immigrant in the workforce.

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In the construction industry in Finland, a large number of workers are immigrants. However there are still many professions that have never had an immigrant worker. Image: Karoliina Simoinen / Yle

In Bergbom's view, being labelled a racist often scares people so much that they become overly aware of racism and even hypersensitive. Then when they are at work they do not dare not say anything in case it is perceived as racist.

However, developing awareness is a normal and natural process. However, it is common for workplaces to jump from one extreme to the other before finding the appropriate middle ground, Bergbom adds.

Importance of a workplace community

Castaneda points out that for many people who move to Finland, the importance of the workplace as a community and social system is more pronounced than for someone who grew up here. An immigrant may not have friends in Finland other than work colleagues.

"The work community is an important forum for immigrants to experience inclusion and attachment. It is therefore especially important to invest in it. When this is understood, we can really do a lot of good with our small-scale work in our own work communities," Castaneda believes.

Castaneda attaches great importance to all kinds of people doing all kinds of work. Otherwise, there is a risk that employees of Finnish descent are perceived as experts, while those of foreign descent are seen only in certain jobs, such as cleaners or drivers.

"Although we do not consciously notice it, we are beginning to see the world as one where people of a certain appearance do certain jobs. This is important, especially for the emerging generations, in terms of what kind of vision they have for the future," Castaneda says.

The expert points out that it is important to consider how minorities are discussed in terms of working life, and to make it clear that no discrimination or racism will be tolerated in the workplace.

Prevention is always easier and cheaper than a cure. Even if there are no problems, there must be clear agreement in the workplace about who or where employees of immigrant background workers can report if they experience prejudice on the job.

Ombudsman probes discrimination against people of African origin

Agreed processes increase the sense of job security and the atmosphere, and a good workplace culture is one where diversity is accepted and workers are allowed to be who they are, Castaneda adds.

Moua hopes that employers will make it clear what is acceptable in the workplace, as without the commitment of management such measures will not succeed.

"It should not just be that there's an equality day every year, but that it is constantly maintained," Moua says.

This autumn, the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman will begin a research study on the issue of discrimination in Finland against people of African origin. The survey will focus on racial discrimination and harassment both at work and in the education sector. The results of the study are to be published early next year.

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